Brahams: Violin Sonatas No’s 1-3

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Violin Sonatas Nos 1-3
PERFORMER: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Lambert Orkis (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 477 8767

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Nobody could say that Anne-Sophie Mutter doesn’t work hard at her Brahms. The intensity is electrifying, while every nuance of every phrase sounds as though it has been exhaustively planned. Perhaps that’s why the whole experience feels so utterly unnatural. Every big rhetorical pause, swoop or scoop of the bow, every deep-dug accent, is like having someone poke you in the ribcage and say, ‘Now listen to this!’ 

Yes, the playing is phenomenal, technically speaking. Everything sounds as though it’s exactly the way she wants it – which just makes it all the more uncomfortable. The searing climaxes – as for instance in the slow movement of the Third Sonata – might be more convincing if there were more genuine emotional contrast, but while the changes of colour may be extreme, the feeling of being expressively browbeaten remains.

Even in piano it’s easy to imagine the seismograph needle trembling in anticipation of the next elemental onslaught. Consider the beginning of the first movement development of the First Sonata: Brahms marks the violin’s quiet pizzicato chords dolce – ‘sweetly’, or ‘gently’. Yet although the volume drops in Mutter’s performance the edgy intensity is still very much present, distracting from Lambert Orkis’s attempts to make the first theme sing out quietly on the piano. 

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Go to Krysia Osostowicz and Susan Tomes on Helios for all the tenderness, subtlety and intimacy Mutter misses – above all for a demonstration of how you can be gentle and powerfully persuasive at the same time. Some may find Mutter’s approach exciting, however I can’t imagine there will be many Brahmsians amongst them. Stephen Johnson